Business Insider: COVID-19 left the live music industry in shambles, so DJs are finding other creative ways to connect with fans
By Liz Kraker, August 12th 2020
- The live music industry could lose nearly $9 billion in ticket sales after the coronavirus canceled most performances in 2020.
- But one genre of music, electronic dance music, has weathered the storm, with DJs pivoting to online streaming to recover lost revenue.
- The genre has also adopted new technologies like virtual reality and video game settings for future concerts.
- For smaller DJs, online experiences are a means of survival, while for bigger names, online concerts have become major fundraisers for coronavirus response.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
We’ve seen the future of live music — and it belongs to the DJs.
Perhaps more than other music genres, electronic dance musicians have found ways to connect with fans from afar with internationally streamed public concerts to virtual reality concerts.
For the past five years, Redpill VR has worked on a platform to create digital replicas of live music venues like Ushuaïa, an upscale hotel on Ibiza, Spain’s famous party island.
In a normal year, 3 million tourists would be flocking to Ibiza’s beach hotels and nightclubs for a summer-long dance party.
But since the pandemic has canceled or postponed in-person concerts around the world, Redpill told Business Insider Today its virtual experiences could become more popular.
“We’re building virtual venues that if you can design anything you want to, without reality constraining it, what would that look like,” CMO Isaiah Martin said of the company’s most recent project, the virtualization of Ushuaïa. “Their design team has put together some incredible concepts and our team is now busy, busy working, building it.”
In Redpill’s virtual venues, a motion-capture camera and sensor suit copy a DJ’s movements onto a digital avatar in real time. Martin disclosed that Sensorium, its content channel launch partner that is presenting the virtual Ushuaïa venue, will be bringing an “A list” of DJs who have residences there.
The company’s already worked with a list of DJs who have residencies there, like the Grammy-winning David Guetta.
To access these experiences, people will need a VR headset like the Oculus. And once they’ve jumped into this virtual world, they can explore a forest filled with sound reacting objects like electric orbs and jumping crystals or stick around the dance floor which has its own set of fun areas to discover.
For example, you can touch an orb near the dance floor that’ll shrink your avatar down so much that you’ll feel like you’re dancing next to giants. And if you want to get a closer view of the DJ, the VIP orb will teleport you right on top of the turntables themselves. For people who like to hang back at a concert, you can take an elevator or climb a tree to get a full view of the dance floor below and even have the option to switch the stage’s design.
It’s not quite the same, but online performances like this one are pumping much-needed revenue into an industry that the virus has decimated.
If live music remains “dark” for the rest of 2020, it could cause an $8.9 billion loss in box office revenues – in a year that was supposed to set new records for ticket sales.
But many music artists aren’t letting these bad prospects stop them.
In April and May, a combined 49 million people tuned into David Guetta’s United At Home concerts that were livestreamed in Miami and New York without a physical audience.
“The experience will be one of the most memorable in my life because I could see the people on the balconies going absolutely nuts. There were like 16,000 people in all the towers around me,” Guetta told Business Insider Today of his Miami performance. “It was not anything abstract. It was very real. And I love it.”
At his New York show at the top of Rockefeller Center, Guetta didn’t have the benefit of viewers on balconies, but could still interact with people in a private Zoom meeting during his set.
“This is why even in New York City I insisted that I have this interaction with people on Zoom,” he said. “Because I want to play for some real people I can see, you know? And I like interacting with people.”
The two events raised over $1.2 million for COVID-19 relief with donations to Feeding America, the World Health Organization, Fondation Hôpitaux de Paris, and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.
Live streaming concerts may be something DJs haven’t really delved into before, but these digital experiences aren’t completely foreign to them.
Electronic dance music, or EDM, started as an underground scene in the 1970s, and became a global phenomenon with the rise of social media.
Those online roots are helping DJs pivot to a world without in-person concerts.
“I think EDM is gonna be fine. I think if it’s over by the end of the year and it goes somewhat back to normal, I think the impact will be minimal,” Ethan Baer, a senior vice president at Create Music Group, told Business Insider Today.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, DJs have hosted over 7,000 live streams.
YouTube channels like Proximity, with no experience in live entertainment, worked with Los Angeles event company Brownies & Lemonade to put on what they say was the first livestreamed festival after the pandemic started.
For their Digital Mirage festivals, DJs streamed from many locations, like parks, deserts, and even underwater.
They’re really using these online music festivals to showcase a very unique side of themselves that a lot of people don’t see, and don’t get a chance to see, because they can’t see live or pay X amount for a ticket,” Blake Coppelson, CEO of Proximity and founder of the Digital Mirage festivals, told Business Insider Today.
Proximity’s Digital Mirage festivals also raised $300,000 for COVID-19 relief funds like Sweet Relief Musicians Fund and $70,000 for non-profit organizations like Equal Justice Initiative and Color of Change.
Other events took place inside iconic locations while the audience stayed at home.
For his Digital Mirage 2 set, Dutch DJ Oliver Heldens played at one of the Netherlands’ historic venues, the Concertgebouw.
“I thought I also wanted to do a livestream with a more mature and sophisticated look,” Heldens told Business Insider Today. “The Concertgebouw is a place with lots of history and it looks very sophisticated. It looks very classy. And it’s different than the things I’ve done before.”
Major festivals like Tomorrowland, which usually attracts 400,000 people, are going fully online too.
At the end of July the festival giant held its digital version, Tomorrowland Around the World — and it wasn’t that different from the live version.
“All year long we make our stages in 3D, we make our light shows in 3D. So we have everything digital. And two months later we’re here, and I think the results look really amazing,” Tomorrowland founder Michiel Beers said in a press conference.
To add a little realism to this virtual Tomorrowland world, DJs recorded their performances in green-screen studios where playing in front of a large festival audience was recreated.
“It took a little getting used to, but it was very loud,” the DJ sister duo behind NERVO told press. “We had super loud monitors, so it really felt like we were on a stage. And sometimes when you’re playing these big festivals, you can’t see the crowd anyways. It’s dark in front of you. So, you know, it was easy enough to get into it.”
Tomorrowland Around the World dipped its toes into a game-like world with an online island full of activities and games for festivalgoers to enjoy other than the DJs’ sets. Other companies, like Rave Family, are diving into gaming headfirst.
Rave Family Block Fest, which may possibly be the world’s largest digital music festival, will take place inside the video game Minecraft.
CEO Jackie McGuire told Business Insider that she came up with the idea after her favorite music festival, Electric Forest, was canceled because of the pandemic. Her children’s love for Minecraft and the video game’s building capabilities made creating a festival inside the game possible.
Surprisingly enough, McGuire found that quite a few DJs already play Minecraft daily.
“A lot of artists actually built some of this stuff themselves, even ones who didn’t normally play Minecraft,” McGuire said. “It’s really a cool concept to me that the artist designed literally everything about the world that you’re standing inside listening.”
Over 75 stages were built and over 900 artists were scheduled to play at the event in mid-July. However, after some technical concerns from both fans and artists, it was postponed indefinitely.
Tapping into the video game industry isn’t as new for EDM either. Electronic music is often the backdrop for digital worlds, so some gamers are already fans of the genre.
For years DJs have worked with companies to make their own games, like deadmau5 and his games Ghosts’n DJs and Absolut deadmau5. They’ve even been featured in games themselves, like Steve Aoki in the games Star Trek Fleet Command and Speedy Ninja. Fortnite has also held in-game concerts featuring DJs like Marshmello, Dillon Francis and Major Lazer.
Gaming is seven times larger than the entire music industry, so music insiders expect to see more DJs collaborating with professional esports players as well.
“When the pandemic ends, those gamers aren’t going anywhere. They’re still going to be playing the games,” Baer told Business Insider Today. “So I think that model, tapping into that, is even more sustainable than focusing solely on live performances or virtual live performances.”
Other musicians, like Afrojack — who’s made hits with David Guetta, Pitbull and Beyoncé — are using the extra time off the road to make new music and bring on new talent for their own record labels.
“All the money that I made over my career is now going into building studios, getting these kids apartments, getting them the right teachers, getting them dancing teachers, getting them mental coaches,” Afrojack told Business Insider Today. “Everything necessary to get them to where they want to be, where they can do what they love. And that’s the final financial risk I’m taking.”
Between VR, live streams, video games, esports and DJs’ record labels, are these alternative revenue streams enough to keep EDM afloat without touring?
The founder of EDM news blog Trance Farm, Erik Lake, thinks so.
“I think EDM does stand a much better chance of surviving the current world situation as compared to, say, a rock band,” he said. “It’s much easier for a DJ. You don’t have to set up an entire stage with lights and speakers and monitors and drums and a guitar. It’s so much more compact.”
Chart-topping artists can afford to produce charity events or make money from ad revenue on their massive audiences.
But for smaller acts, free livestreams can’t go on forever. Ticketed livestream events might be the answer.
Baer said that during the pandemic, Create Music Group has seen success with these kinds of events for many of their DJ clients. He said one of them, Gareth Emery, generated “a good amount of money” from a ticketed event through the platform Tixr.
“You can still create anticipation by limiting it to 1,000 people. So not everyone can get in and you’re generating ticketing revenue,” he said.
On the other hand, emerging artists like JVNA had to put touring plans on hold. She’s relying on streams to connect with fans instead, even if she’s not playing music.
In her livestreams, JVNA does everything from cooking and painting to playing video games and learning how to do dance routines.
“In the beginning there was a spike in the increase of my viewership, mainly just because I did all these digital festivals,” she told Business Insider Today. “There’s a lot of people who didn’t have the recognition that they could get from just doing regular shows, mainly just because they didn’t have a name or following big enough to get a booking agent and go do these crazy things. But everything’s on the internet now, so everyone has the same kind of chance to be on the same sort of level.”
And maybe fans won’t rush back to the dance floor — even after large concerts return.
“I think these immersive digital experiences are going to stick around,” Martin of Redpill VR said. “And I think one of the biggest things about this is your ability to connect with your friends from all over the world and share this experience.”
For the DJs, the platform may not matter as long as they can share music with their fans.
“I’m very happy that people are into my music after all those years. And I’m still incredibly inspired, and I have so much more to say and to express with the music,” David Guetta said. “So if it’s going be with the radio, with the streaming, with this channel or that channel, to me, it doesn’t matter.”